The transformation of the 30th Annual Meeting of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) that was planned to take place in Dublin early May into a completely virtual meeting within the timeframe of only a few weeks was a colossal task that required huge efforts from the organizing committee.
Virtual meeting for > 1500 participants
Fruitful and inspiring
Virtual conferencing is pretty different from the regular routine that includes travel, face to face meetings and discussions with colleagues from your field of research and the proverbial drink while viewing posters in the exhibit hall. Instead, oral presentations and posters could be viewed on demand during the conference (and after, until early June) while session discussions of 45 minutes were scheduled each afternoon (European time) for the various sessions. These discussions were generally very briefly introduced by the chairs, the speakers were introduced and they pitched their work and the virtual audience participated by asking questions not only in person in the Zoom-meeting but also via the chat box. The success of the session discussion largely depended on the preparation by the chairs and the active participation of speakers and audience, but the majority of the discussions was fruitful and inspiring.
Advantages and positive aspects
Positive aspects of the on demand viewing of oral presentations are that the online personal meeting programme could be maximally tailored to each attendee’s own preferences, which is a great improvement over missing exactly those presentations that you wanted to see because there were just too many interesting presentation all at the same time. Another advantage is the possibility to scroll back in the presentation in case some information was missed, or the presentation could be stopped for detailed studying of informative graphs. Also, the availability of posters and presentations for an extra month after the conference is helpful.
Key note speaker
The traditional key-note remained scheduled at Sunday night and was presented by our former colleague Annemarie van Wezel, currently professor at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. She gave an overview of the EU Green Deal and what is would and should mean for the way we deal with chemicals. For example, how can we handle the ‘One Substance, One Assessment’ approach? She presented several research outcomes that clearly show that this is at the moment not the case, e.g. in the current project ECORISK.
Broad range of topics
As always, the conference offered a broad range of topics, from chemistry to eco- and wildlife toxicology, and from water, soil and biota to air and consumer products. The session on ‘Occurrence, fate, transport and reactivity of emerging micropollutants in aquatic water systems’ was populated by several high quality contributions, focusing on difficult to analyze compounds (e.g. glyphosate, but also antibiotics), detection of transformation products, bioaccumulative compounds, multicomponent analysis etc.
In the session on ‘Complex mixtures in user products and the environment: chemical and toxicity profiling, and modelling to identify risk drivers and estimate footprints’, three young scientists presented their work that included both chemical analytical work (high resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) in combination with either GC or LC) and in vitro bioassays for toxicity characterization. The field of HRMS was also covered in-depth in a session on ‘Non-target analysis in environmental sciences: the state of the art and future perspectives’ with high quality contributions and a lively discussion. More and more SETAC talks seem to include both HRMS and in vitro effect-based testing strategies, aiming at the identification and toxicological characterization of Chemicals of Emerging Concern. In another, we were given the floor to highlight the current GWRC project on Effect-Based Monitoring for water safety planning.
The exploration of the potential of wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor human exposure to pollutants and public health was in interesting session focusing on chemicals used in all kinds of consumer products, such as phthalates and bisphenol-A. This research field is still rapidly expanding and has a lot of opportunities for future research. That wastewater contains a wealth of information not only with regard to chemicals but also pathogens has recently been demonstrated by the discovery of the corona virus in wastewater samples by KWR.
Microplastics, veterinary pharmaceuticals and PFAS
Special attention was paid to microplastics, veterinary pharmaceuticals and PFAS. These were not only presented from research but also from policy and industrial perspective. For the PFAS for example, it was learned that the focus is on “new/unkown” PFAS, while addressing mixture effects and pursuing a “Science to Policy dialogue”. For KWR, these outcomes are of great value in current research projects. KWR was presenting an overview of research on microplastics in the Netherlands during a poster highlight. Next, Stefan presented the Water Quality Index based on the purification effort as developed with Tessa Pronk for RIWA during a platform presentation. Both presentations received positive and constructive feedback to continue the research.
Although virtual conferencing definitely gives a different experience than personal meetings, under the current circumstances related to the corona virus with regard to international travel and social distancing it was great that the environmental toxicology and chemistry community from Europe and beyond could gather for its annual meeting. More than 80 to 100 viewers were present at each session, while the Q&A was open for another month. The reduction of the carbon footprint of large conferences like the SETAC Annual Meeting is a bonus with the eye on sustainability, and the virtual format could be a blueprint for the future although of course personal interaction is highly preferred. Next year’s annual meeting will be in Seville, let’s see what the future brings.